Smithsonian Home Products Hit Stores

The Associated Press
Saturday, November 17, 2007; 1:37 PM

WASHINGTON -- Move over Martha Stewart. You're getting some new competition from an old source: furniture and home decor products inspired by the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian Collection for the Home includes dining and bedroom sets, chandeliers, sinks and even fireplace accessories modeled after pieces and designs held by the world's largest museum and research complex.

"They all have a history," Peter Reid, of Smithsonian Business Ventures, said of the pieces. "As you would expect, some of that information accompanies each piece."

Like Stewart and others, the Smithsonian is making the best of its name through television, magazines and product lines as a way of generating income. Colonial Williamsburg and George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia have similar licensing programs for home furnishings.

The Smithsonian collection is being offered through licensing agreements with Bernhardt Furniture Co., Kichler Lighting and other manufacturers that will distribute products to retailers such as Dillard's Inc., the department store chain based in Little Rock, Ark.

The nonprofit Smithsonian receives about 70 percent of its operating budget from the federal government, but it is struggling to pay for a $2.5 billion maintenance backlog.

Smithsonian officials say royalties generated by the collection will become a substantial funding stream.

"It's a way for the institution to make money on things that reference the collection, and it's also a vehicle to raise awareness of the Smithsonian and its collections and the variety of museums that we have," said Reid, consumer products director in the business unit's licensing division.

Financial terms of the agreements were not released. But some of the deals included multiyear advertising arrangements with Smithsonian magazine and Smithsonian memberships for participating retailers.

This isn't the first time the Smithsonian has offered merchandise under its name. Its catalog includes such items as clothing and jewelry, some under the Smithsonian name, Reid said. Consumers also can buy Smithsonian-branded books through HarperCollins Publishers, hobby kits and other products thanks to older licensing deals.

Some of the corporate deals have drawn scrutiny from historians and nonprofit watchdogs in recent years, but the Smithsonian says they are necessary.

Bernhardt Furniture Co. of Lenoir, N.C., has begun rolling out the initial furniture line of mostly wood and leather pieces, based on designs found in the original Smithsonian Castle building and the institution's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

The Smithsonian Collection by Bernhardt carries the institution's logo and includes two lines of furniture. The National Heritage Collection, in a walnut veneer, is rooted in the 19th-century Regency and Empire designs, while the American Archive Collection is based on Southern, "low country" designs in cherry wood with hints of the West Indies, said Heather Eidenmiller, brand development director for Bernhardt.

About 200 furniture retailers across the country have agreed to carry the Smithsonian Collection, Eidenmiller said.

At Belfort Furniture in Dulles, Va., store managers said the collection already is selling well. The furniture store recently sold a Smithsonian bedroom set to a Washington Redskins player. Prices range from $250 for a side table to about $2,400 for a king-size sleigh bed.

"Not only do you have beautiful furniture but you get to do something good for the country by supporting this American museum," Eidenmiller said. "Each piece has a name and the inspiration. It really makes (consumers) feel like they've got a piece of the museum."

Kichler Lighting, based in Cleveland, is manufacturing and distributing the Smithsonian lighting collection through independent retailers. One set, the Renwick Collection, is named for James Renwick Jr., architect of the original Smithsonian Castle, which was completed in 1855. The design is based on one of the original lighting fixtures in the building when electricity was added in 1914, said Jeff Dross, product manager for Kichler.

An outdoor lighting collection was designed around a triangular lantern that designers found in a museum archive. Prices for the lighting fixtures range from $98 for a wall sconce to $5,385 for a chandelier.

Some branding experts urge caution in lending a revered name like the Smithsonian to retail products.

"It's a good way to make money, but it's also a good way to destroy your brand," said Alan Siegel, chief executive of the New York branding firm Siegel and Gale.

"It has to be done with great care and very intelligently and in harmony with what the brand stands for."


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